Robert Heinlein was one of the most influential writers of sci-fi in the 20th century. He published more than thirty novels, several of which won awards, and many more received nominations. Considered one of the ‘big three’ alongside Asimov and Clarke — the American perspective, that is — Heinlein’s agenda included independence, personal responsibility, freedom, and the influence of religion and government on society. Stranger in a Strange Land, arguably his most famous book — and perhaps most controversial — is the subject of this review.
Stranger in a Strange Land is the story of Valentine Michael Smith. The only remaining human of the Mars settlers, he is brought back to Earth and kept under wraps by the US State Department. Raised by Martians, Smith’s cultural perspective is radically different, not to mention he has the ability to control body and mind telekinetically. As the sole survivor of the Mars missions Smith is seen as “owning” Mars in the government’s eyes, and is therefore protected and treated as a pawn in larger world affairs by US officials. Jubal Harshaw, retired attorney-at-law, comes into contact with Smith one day and kidnaps him in the hopes of protecting him from the various social and political interests at work while plugging his own agenda in the process. Smith, as innocent as a child, is allowed to develop by Harshaw, giving the cultural instincts he acquired on Mars free reign on Earth. Where these instincts take him flies in the face of all that’s thought “right,” telling Smith’s tragic tale in the process.
Heinlein does not tread lightly in Stranger in a Strange Land; sexuality, religion, and politics all play a strong hand in the novel’s exposition. Free love, the greed and power mongering of organized religion, and the manipulative aspects of government are expounded in near non-fictional form. These are precisely the reasons that the book is considered ‘bold’ by some and ‘controversial’ by others, so readers with dogmatic tendencies to their beliefs should be warned that Heinlein has a very contemporary agenda for his story and one, if taken too far out of context, that is easily misunderstood.
In order to write further about Stranger in a Strange Land, I must switch to the first person so that you will know the complaints which follow are not based on anything more than personal preference. As a big fan of sci-fi, I’m aware of the position the book holds in many “best of all time” lists and the resulting ire I’m about to draw. However, I just can’t bring myself to like Stranger in a Strange Land. And I tried. I slogged through page after page, hoping to reach a point where Heinlein’s ranting ceased, where the dialogue and plotting behaved like something more than a super-bouncy ball, where characters used a voice that wasn’t so obviously the author’s, or where women were treated with equality. But halfway through, with no sign of change in the horizon, I quit.
I write in an apologetic tone because I know there is some value to Heinlein’s message. Like in Robert Silverberg’s A Time of Changes, I can see that Heinlein is focusing his energy/angst on perceived problems with modern civilization, proposing his own 1960s counter-culture influenced ideas in their stead. (His commentary on the church is in particular witty and a nice touch of imagination.) But it’s about presentation. So, simply be warned, the book is not everyone’s cup of tea. The book is written in a combination of moods: wry humor, sharp rebuttal, and overt, borderline satirical, commentary, and if this is your preference, by all means have a go. Otherwise, Harshaw’s locution will jar.
In the end, Stranger in a Strange Land is not for everybody. Those who like it seem to love it. Its divisive nature was, for me, based on presentation of themes (i.e. an unfocused, tumultuous narrative and seething authorial voice), but I imagine most who dislike the book do so based on principle. Heinlein openly challenges several widespread beliefs including religious influence, government control, sexual taboos, etc. Discussion of these issues occupies the majority of the book’s 528 pages, limiting the underlying story. Thus, for those not bothered by polemical dialogue and lengthy sections of navel-gazing while banging on a pulpit, the book has a chance to be great.